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EU wants Montenegro, but won't offer shortcut

BRUSSELS The EU expansion commissioner, Olli Rehn, said Monday that he hoped to speed up efforts to bring the newly independent Montenegro into the bloc, but he warned that EU membership for the tiny Balkan republic was not inevitable.

Speaking after a meeting in Brussels with Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, Rehn said he was optimistic that Montenegro could conclude an agreement on closer economic and political ties with the EU by the end of the year - a precursor to eventual membership. But he warned that there would be no shortcut to membership.

"Montenegro has a concrete European perspective like other countries of the western Balkans," Rehn said, "However, as I told the prime minister, there is no shortcut to Europe."

The EU has been suffering from expansion fatigue after its 2004 eastward enlargement into a bloc of 465 million people.

Now knocking at the door are Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania and Turkey. But EU foreign ministers signaled over the weekend that the expansion process would probably slow down given the extent of public opposition.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy, making his first trip to Brussels since taking office, strongly backed the prospect of the EU's admitting new Balkan members.

"We've stressed how important it is to include the countries of the Balkans in the union," Prodi said Monday after meeting with the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso. "The absorption capacity of the union should allow this process to go forward." Prodi was the head of the EU's executive arm before he was succeeded by Barroso in 2004.

Rehn will meet Tuesday with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of Serbia to discuss its EU aspirations.

The EU opened preliminary membership talks with Serbia and Montenegro last year, but suspended the talks this month because of Serbia's failure to turn over Ratko Mladic to a UN tribunal to be tried on charges of genocide for his role in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While talks with Serbia have remained frozen, Rehn said negotiations with Montenegro could be started separately after the EU's 25 members recognize the country.

But he stressed that both Serbia and Montenegro had membership prospects. Brussels is loathe to give Montenegro preferential treatment over Serbia for fear of spawning a nationalist backlash in Serbia that could destabilize the region.

Speaking on his first foreign visit since last week's referendum for independence, Djukanovic said his nation's goal remained full EU membership. But he declined to set a target date for joining. As part of its independence drive, Montenegro has repeatedly insisted that being moored to the larger Serbia held back its EU ambitions.

"I'm confident that Montenegro can within several years fulfill all the conditions for European membership," Djukanovic said. He added that the peaceful conduct of the referendum had proved his country's democratic credentials.

Preliminary official results of the May 21 referendum showed that 55.5 percent of voters wanted to end their union with neighboring Serbia, surpassing the 55 percent minimum set by the EU for the vote to succeed.

President Filip Vujanovic of Montenegro told Reuters on Monday that the republic could declare independence "at the end of this week or the beginning of next week."

"It is very close. It is a question of days," he said in Sofia, at a conference of Socialist leaders.

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